When Winter Turned to Spring in Assam's Manas National Park

Welcomed by two one horned rhinoceroses at the Manas National Park, April 2018


To Assam and a new dawn

"Stop the car, stop the car. I can see something in the stream ahead,” said Ishani.

Ishani Nath is a Guwahati based school teacher who travels hours to work but still takes the time out to blog on food. Along with us in the car and with his characteristic ‘been there done that’ look was Sisir Kumar. 

Young Sisir, who runs the Guwahati Foodie Facebook page, had been given the the task of showing me the foodie side of Guwahati and he most enthusiastically took this job on and really brought Guwahati alive for me. 

This was my first trip to the city and to the state of Assam and, barring Darjeeling, to the North East for that matter and I was super excited.




We had set out early in the morning from my hotel Rajdhani Regency. We thundered down the lovely highway from Guwahati after a keteli pitha (steamed rice dumplings with a layer of grated coconut and jaggery inside) and lal cha (black tea) breakfast on the streets at Six Miles. We passed the Brahmaputra on the way and saw the stupa like white memorial (in the pic) set up in honour of the singer, the late Bhupen Hazarika.

We made another breakfast stop later at a dhaaba for a quintessential Eastern Indian dhaaba meal of green moong torka dal, egg bhurji and hot rotis with chai. I mixed the torka and egg together to make a quasi egg torka. Ishani had insisted that we stop for breakfast while we were on the road. She looked at me earnestly and said, “sir, we don’t know what will be the arrangements there and you will be hungry.” She later explained, “that she can’t think when hungry." 

I could completely relate to what she said. I knew I was in good company.




The roads that we were on were really smooth and I haven’t seen any road so good in the whole of Mumbai. Our driver, without my asking him to do so, drove very carefully even on the empty roads and which was a blessing for me as I was recovering from a bad back pain attack. 

We reached our destination, The Manas National Park, in about three hours from Guwahati.

The Manas park is located in lower Assam by the Manas River unlike the more well known Kaziranga National Park in upper Assam. The road got a bit bumpy for a sedan once we entered the park as the path was pebbled and that’s when Ishani made us excitedly stop to see what she had spotted.


"Something is in the water"

Turning poison into medicine, one rhino at a time

Turned out that what we had spotted were two rhinos lolling in the stream. This became clear when one of them came out of the water even though the other stayed in. I whipped up my iPhone and used the zoom mode and got some decent pictures. Ishani assembled her DSLR and many lenses and got more pics. Mr Rhino wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere and happily posed while his wife napped.

Pictures done we drove down a bit more and reached our destination and that too just in the nick of time. 

We had come here for the Manas Spring Festival and the inauguration ceremony was going on. All the guests had spoken and it was my turn to address the audience. This, of course, was after my hosts put a scarf (gamosa) around my neck. Everyone whom I met in Assam would put one of these beautiful scarves around my neck. Some put a second one if we met twice. 

Welcomes don’t get any warmer than they do in Assam!

Our being welcomed by the rhinos at the entrance of the Manas National Park, as I realised later during a conversation with Deba Kumar Dutta, a senior project officer with WWF India, wonderfully captured the spirit of the Manas National Park.

It turns out that at one time there were 105 rhinos in the Manas National Park. The entire rhino population at Manas was wiped out in the 1990s by poachers during the Bodoland agitation. Once the BTAD accord was signed in 2003, the BTC (Bodo Territorial Council) came forward to save Manas and to rebuild it with the help of the Government of Assam and organisations such as the WWF and local citizens. The Indian Rhino Vision programme was launched in 2005 and two male rhinos from the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary were released in Manas at 2008 as a start of the Rhino Translocation Project.

Something amazing happened during the process and I was really intrigued when I first heard of it. From what I understand, when the BTC (Bodo Territorial Council) took charge of Manas, they encouraged the former poachers to surrender and to use their understanding and knowledge of the jungle to help (!) the conservation process initiated by the WWF.

“And so the destroyers turned protectors,” said Puspanjalee Das Dutta. Puspanjalee is the wife of Deba Kumar Dutta, someone whom she proudly describes as being “responsible for one of the largest rhino relocation projects in the world.” 

Today there are 35 rhinos in Manas compared to a time not that long back when there were none. Thanks to this, Manas won back its Natural World Heritage UNESCO tag in 2011. 

A lovely example of the principle of ‘turning poison into medicine', if there ever was one, in my opinion.


Human Revolution: Taking the responsibility of the changing ones environment by changing oneself


With Puspanjalee Das Dutta at the Manas Spring Festival

Puspanjalee is a publishing editor and blogger and a lovely cook too. She is based in Guwahati now and originally belonged to Barpeta in lower Assam. She loves her state and her culture and takes great pride in showcasing its beauty to the world at large. She is the one who had invited me to the Manas Spring Festival and that’s how this magical journey began and I am eternally grateful to her for that. 


The origin of the Manas Spring Festival, the first in the proposed ‘Celebrate Spring in North East’ series, draws its origins to another far sighted initiative of WWF India. This was an initiative to involve the entire local community, and not just the men, in productive activities. One of the plans for this was to tap the cooking skills of the local women and the wives of the former poachers for culinary tourism opportunities and thereby making the process of sustainable development far more holistic. I found this plan to be an acknowledgment of the wonderful spirit of gender equality that I seemed to sense in the few days that I spent in Assam.





Now the thing is that the food of the Bodos is built on using indigenous produce and forest vegetables. It is very low on oil and has near minimal spices in it. 


So minimal, that our urban tastebuds might rebel against its purity and find it ‘bland’!

The solution for this 'problem' of adaptability came through another of the very committed individuals that I met at the Manas Spring Festival. 

I am talking of Mitali Dutta of Food Sutra who, among other things, writes a food blog, conducts cooking and baking classes in Guwahati and is a great cook too. 


How do I know about the last bit? Both Puspanjalee and Mitali invited me to their homes when I returned to Guwahati and I had two lovely home-cooked meals there thanks to them. 


With Mitali Datta, enjoying a Bodo lunch at her baby, the Manas Spring Festival.
Mitali was invited as a resource person by WWF India to train the Swankar Mithinga Onsai Afat, a group set up by the villager to work on the hospitality initiative to drive rural tourism to Manas.

Mitali went to the Manas National Park and took workshops with the locals showing them how to cook in bulk for a commercial set up. Being Assamese herself and from the city, Mitali could sensitise the Bodo ladies on how to cook in a manner where the taste and quality of the food is is consistent and hygienic and which would appeal to the palate of a larger audience by making some minor tweaks to it. Once her wards were ready, Mitali came up with the idea of the Manas Spring Festival where this food could be offered to those present.

The food that was dished out to visitors to Manas at the Manas Spring Festival was a runaway hit. The ladies had to replenish the vessels again and kept the fires going during the festival, such was the demand! 

Ticket sales for the food hit the roof as visitors to the festival revelled in the simplicity and honesty of the food. Many who were staying at the local resorts came to the festival grounds came to the try out the food and thereby adding to the sales.

To me, what happened was truly an example of people changing their own lives and ways of thinking to thereby change circumstances that they found themselves in.



So how was the food? 

I quite liked most of what I tasted. I tried everything over two days and yet felt so light and fresh at the end of each meal. The magic of using good and fresh locally sourced ingredients elevated the meals to a different level of purity. 

Rice was core to the meal and to go with that, there were simple yellow dals and for those who had asked me about it, there were vegetarian dishes such as slow cooked ladies finger and sabzis made with potatoes and local greens such as kosu and matikalda. 

This would taste like simple home food to many from across India. 



On the first day, I had another interesting chicken dish called onla where chicken was cooked with coarse rice flour. The grainy and starchy texture of the sauce gave the dish a very far eastern Asian feel to me. The tenderness of the chicken was so different from what one is used to back home.

There was a chicken dish on day two called sobei which was made with chicken and black udad dal which I loved and I could imagine K love too as Parsi love dals cooked with meat.



There was the famous pork khorika of course. Cubed pork barbecued on bamboo sticks kept on wire meshes on open wood fires. The meat was seasoned with just a touch of salt and chopped chillies and the taste was all about the smokiness of tender pork with the meat being the hero of the dish. 

Another interesting dish was pork stewed with jute leaves. The jute leaves were bitter like bitter gourd / karela. The texture had the slight spring which a shiitake mushroom has. A complete counterpoint to the rich and fatty cubes of pork and the pairing made for quite an interesting, even if unfamiliar, combination with rice. The sort where the first tentative bite makes you want to take another. A dish which makes you realise how full flavoured a dish can be even without adding any spices.

I was told that the pigs reared by locals are kept under clean and hygienic conditions and definitely not as garbage feeders as they were once at Goa. This is because pork is consumed widely by many tribes in the state and therefore the quality is important to those rearing it. 

Hamming it at the Khorika pit

Assamese Porkaholics...an urban legend

Interestingly, the consumption of pork is not part of the ‘mainstream’ food culture of the Assam, as I found out. By mainstream, one refers to those who live in the plains and in cities such as Guwahati and who refer to themselves specifically as 'Assamese'. I came across protests from many on social media about the association made with pork and ‘Assamese’ cuisine. 

While there are some from the cities who now consume pork, this is more out of personal choice it seems than as part of of the norm I was told.

"We do not eat pork. Our diet has a lot more to it," was the common refrain from them. 

Pork rules supreme in the tribal areas though among folks such as the Bodos and those of the Mising community (I had some excellent pork dishes with Sisir at the Mising Kitchen in Guwahati)

There are many Assams as I realised during my time there!


The Manas Spring Festival Kitchen

There was a fair bit of fish on offer too. Simple curries made with local and bony river fish with greens added to them for example. Plus goroi fish smoked on the kahorika pit. I was not a big fan of the fish dishes I must admit as I am wary of bony fish

There was a touch of exotica too with snails (a bit sandy but the meat was pleasant and fresh), silkworms (the texture was pasty and like machher deem or fish roe as a fellow Bengali there felt too) and eel which I didn’t get to try.

Snails
Silkworms

I must quickly point out, before I am corrected by them, that the Assamese of the plains do not consume silkworms and eels!

Smoked Goroi khorika fish

There was rice beer (jou mai) on offer which was getting chugged by the gallon and it was the most popular stall in the fair and yet there was no drunken revelry. Just happy faces. 

I took a small sip of the beer. It tasted a bit sweet and fruity, a bit like lychee juice. I didn’t venture much though as I am a bit wary of alcoholic drinks I am not familiar with.

At the end of the festival I was told, enthused by the crowd response to their food, the ladies of Manas
 decided to set up the Gungzeema  Kitchen  from where they plan to offer food on sale to those who visit the park. I later saw on Facebook that Mitali now plans to launch something called Gungzeema Culinary Expeditions with them and you should contact her if you want to book and try the food of the people of Manas.

Exciting times lie ahead indeed and all through the personal initiatives of a few good souls and, as I said earlier, there were many more such examples around. 

Rice beer cheers

Weaving a succes story

One of the folks that I met at the Manas Spring Festival is a gentleman named Saumar J Sharma. He is a fellow Mumbaikar whom I met for the first time at Guwahati when I went for the festival. Like me, Saumar too is an immigrant to Mumbai and has found a stage there to live his dreams but feels most connected to his homeland too.

Saumar had left Assam years back to pursue a corporate career. He has recently started his life afresh by giving up his former profession to pursue his love for textiles. He quit his job and travelled across the country meeting local handloom weavers in remote areas. He came back home with ideas on how to work with them and create a market for their talent. He then set up the Indian Weaver’s Alliance with an objective to connect local weavers with a larger market and help generate more work for them in the process. The Indian Weavers Alliance is a private enterprise and Saumar is currently working with the Grameen Sahara Silk Manufacturing Co in a project involving fifty weavers at present who have been trained in making versatile products through innovative weaving processes using natural fibres.  

The weavers in Manas include the wives of the former poachers whose husbands had joined the forest conservation force. Saumar aims to generate at least 240 days of employment in a year for them compared to what was than half of that earlier. 

Saumar helped in ensuring that the execution of the Manas Spring Festival was a success.

Bloggers Madhurima, Ishani Nath and Debjani Paul, Bengalis who live in
different parts of the country, found a lot to shop for at
 the Manas Spring Festival!
Some of the weaves produced by the locals were on sale at the festival too. I bought textiles from there and later from Saumar’s office at Guwahati too. I bought so much (!) that I had to carry the bags in my hand to avoid being charged for excess baggage in the flights back but everyone (the ladies on both sides of the family and my bother and mama in law) was happy with the gifts I bought…saris, stoles, scarves bed covers…which made me happy.

That's me with with the sari I bought for my mother and that's Saumar in the yellow
cap and Akkil Suvarna, who managed the PR for the festival, in the middle
Joining the local Bodo women and men who worked tirelessly to welcome us to the Manas Festival, and all this in between cooking lavish feasts and showcasing local dances in the fierce heat, were many others starting from the paramilitary forces who ensured the safety all present. 

There was the deputy chief of BTC, Mr Kampha Borgowary too. He had played a key role in getting the locals involved initially, I was told, in the rhino relocation project. He spent an entire day at the festival encouraging the local community despite being a very busy man.




Then there were people from across the country and beyond who had come to support the movement.

Take popular chef TV chef Gautam Mehrishi from Mumbai, for example, who was there as one of the  chief guests. He got fully into the thick of things and took part in all the activities. He gave a  special cooking lesson/ demo to the Bodo home cooks using locally available ingredients and showed them how to give twists to their traditional dishes and make it look contemporary without interfering with the integrity of the dish. This was his first trip to Assam, Gautam told me, but he has spent a part of his growing up years in the North East and feels a strong affinity to the region .





There was Joi Barua, a Mumbai based musician of Assamese origin who is doing seminal work in incorporating Assamese music into the world music movement. He was at the festival encouraging all participants, especially those performing local dances.


That's Joi Barua in the yellow scarf. Saumar in the black shirt

There were volunteers from Guwahati starting with Puspanjalee and Mitali’s husbands and kids and family members, the owner of Rajdhani Residency hotel who had hosted us in the city, influencers such as Sisir Kumar and many more working hard to make the event a success.

With the husbands, Deba in dark blue and Abhijit in light blue


Joining them were a group of bloggers from across the country who were put up in tents set up by the organisers and who were enthusiastically participating in the festival, recording what has happening and sharing it. Some like Debjani Paul, a Bengali from Pune, continued her Assamese journey of discovery after the festival too and shared some wonderful pictures on her Instagram account. 

Then there were members of an International Backpacker’s Facebook group who responded to a call from Mitali and descended upon Manas from all over (including some international guests), stayed in the tents, and worked as volunteers at the event. 

Yes, the number of inspiring tales coming out of the forests of Manas were truly unending.

When winter turns to spring

In the weeks preceding the Manas trip, I was racked by self doubt and questions about my work and the direction it should take. I was down with a bad back too and that added to the sense of frustration that I felt.

Then came the invite to go to Manas from Puspanjalee  and I readily accepted it.

The many stories of compassion, of self realisation and change and of warmth and love, that I witnessed there, and the feeling of joy and happiness and serenity that came from having achieved something worthwhile that I saw around me, spoke to me and touched me deep inside.


‘Winter had indeed turned to spring’, as I saw at the Manas National Park, and I realised that these are the stories that I should seek out and write about. 

Yes, I had got my answers in the forest just as the sages said we would.

 Do watch the video below encapsulating what happened at the festival:



Acknowledgments:

The concepts of 'winter turns to spring' and 'changing poison into medicine' are taken from the writings of the 14th century Japanese Buddhist monk, Nicherin Daishonin. The concept of Human Revolution referred to here is based on the writings of Dr Daisaku Ikeda, President of the Buddhist organisation, Soka Gakkai International

Do read:

  1.  Ishani Nath's Blog Post on the Manas Spring Festival for details on the food, dance forms and handloom patterns
  2. Mitali Datta's blog for booking Gunzeema meals and tours
  3. Puspanjalee Das Datta's blog
  4. Website of Indian Weavers' Alliance Inc
  5. Debjani Paul's Instagram account 
  6. My post on tarka dal

More pictures

Art:

Bogrumba dance of Bodos


Jhumur Dance

Bihu Dance
More food



Pork in jute leaf where the jute leaves a bitter
after taste


Chilli paste similar to thecha of Maharashtra
 Natural beauty
Tea gardens at the start of Manas

The Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp where domesticated elephants
whose owners can't keep them an more and housed: 

View from outside the cabin at the V Resort at Manas where I was
Put up at the Manas National Park
 Happy humans
With Mitali and Puspanjalee

Rejuvenated post Manas

Our driver who drove us carefully and smoothly

Lunch at Puspanjalee's
My mom saw the masor tenga (yellow here) and said, it looks like
our maacher jhol

Add caption

Assamese meal essentials as shown by Mitali including cherry tomato or kon bilahi for tenga
Banana peel which is burnt for the khaar

Dinner at Mitali's


Saumar tells us about the various types of silk

Assam you beauty





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